Innate business sense
JOHN BENNISON Former head of Wesfarmers Born: Mandalay, Burma, 1924 Died: Perth, aged 92
Career suggestions from a father-in-law may not always bear fruit but John Bennison was wise to heed the advice to “do something more meaningful”. His wife Joyce’s father, Norman Brearley, was a decorated World War I pilot and civil aviation pioneer who had proved brave in the air and exercised sound judgment on land. Perhaps he knew a thing or two, John realised.
He placed an ad in The West Australian, offering his services to “any suitable employer”. The telephone soon rang. It was the assistant general manager of Wesfarmers, Keith Edwards. “I read your little notice in the paper,” he said.
John must have been a highly suitable employee because within 20 years of that ad’s appearance in 1954 he was the boss of the whole show and stayed at the helm for 10 years.
When the company celebrated its centenary in 2014, one of its birthday publications gave praise, naturally, to a range of people who had excelled as leaders. It was John Bennison, however, who “should arguably be accredited as the architect of the modern day Wesfarmers”, was one assessment.
It was the sort of endorsement to bring smiles at Hale School, where he had finished his secondary education in 1941. One of four sons of Arthur and Doris Bennison, he was born on July 3, 1924, in Mandalay, Burma, where his father was working. John settled in Australia at the outset of World War II.
After leaving Hale, John went on to Perth Technical College but his education was interrupted by the war. At 18 he joined the Royal Australian Air Force and, training as a pilot, won his “wings” at the Service Flying Training School in Geraldton. He met Joyce Brearley during this period.
In 1943, though the tide of war was turning in the Allies’ favour, air crew from all over the Empire were particularly welcome. John was one who flew Lancaster bombers over occupied Europe.
After marrying in 1946 he and Joyce lived in New South Wales, where he attended university in Armadale. Work on farms gave him an idea of what agriculturalists grumbled about and might need to acquire in order to overcome problems.
The Saturday morning chat with Keith Edwards in Perth was all the management needed to offer John a job on the spot. He started off as a one-man budgetary control department but soon showed he could perform more than clerical duties. He was invited to prepare a report on several of the company’s retail stores that were underperforming.
“Insightful” is how Wesfarmers has described the new man’s contribution.
His next moves up the promotional ladder were gas fired, so to speak. In the 1950s liquid petroleum gas (LPG) was becoming increasingly important as a source of power to homes and industry in WA. John was given a central role in spreading the Kleenheat word and its customer base. “All the hot water you could ever want”, was the promise in ads.
He eventually became assistant general manager and on New Year’s Day 1974 “JB”, as his staff called him, took over the top job from Edwards, the man who had first spotted his potential.
Praise for JB comes from present Wesfarmers chairman, Michael Chaney: “John had the best commercial judgment of anyone I have dealt with in business. He had an innate understanding of what made sense commercially and dedicated himself to achieving it, often against the odds.
“He also had an unusual way of expressing himself to the point where you sometimes didn’t quite know whether you’d understood his request or observation.
“This had the curious effect of making you think more laterally than you might have and in a business environment that can be very useful. It also made him a good negotiator because he rarely said what people on the other side expected, and it was no doubt quite disarming.”
Chaney, who in 1982 was hired by John as company secretary, has an amusing example of the Bennison style of eccentric communication. In the Wesfarmers history The People’s Story, published in 2014, Chaney quotes John as using the phrase: “I think you should pull it on.” What JB meant was: “I think you should accept the offer (by deputy chief Trevor Eastwood) to join our staff.”
John’s decade in charge (1974–84) included the long battle to acquire the fertiliser and chemicals firm CSBP, leading in 1979 to Australia’s biggest corporate takeover.
After retiring, John had more opportunity to indulge his love of cars. A V8 Holden was a favourite but there were also Dodges and Jaguars. Trout fishing offered a peaceful option away from commerce.
John Bennison died on May 6, and is survived by daughters Jane, Sally and Kate, son Simon, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Joyce, his wife of 68 years, died in 2014.
The conglomerate has good reason to be glad its man “pulled on” an interest in art during a visit to Paris. As general manager he eventually persuaded the board to acquire works by many of Australia’s finest artists, including Gulumbu Yunupingu, Sidney Nolan and Guy Grey-Smith. Whereas Kleenheat was about power, the glory of human endeavour is enshrined in the Wesfarmers Collection.
John Bennison left a legacy of insightfulness and art at Wesfarmers.